Judging percepetions of place through the destruction of Boston's West End
"Working-class and poor people do not live in homes and neighborhoods of their own design. They move either into residences that have been abandoned by the well-to-do, or into new subsidized housing" (171).
"West Enders never used the term 'neighborhood.' They showed little concern for the district as a physical and social entity; their interest was confined essentially to their own street and to the stores they frequented. ... When the West End as a whole was threatened with demolition, the people were shocked ino awareness. Even then some felt sure that while the entire district was coming down, their own street would be spared" (170).
Above: Boston's West End before and after its destruction
There is something troubling, something problematic, present in Tuan's description of the destruction of Boston's West End. A source of failure for the protesters, he argues, was their inability to rally the bulk of the neighborhood, for the vast majority of residents were, in his conception, not aware of nor did they care about the neighborhood on a larger, conceptual level.
The premise is simple: that the poor can not choose where to live, and thus have only their immediate experience, and their accumulation of memories, to tie them to a place. It was only the intellectual and artists of the West End, people who lived there by choice and who were aware of the neighborhood on a conceptual level, who truly had a strong sense of place. Yet the contradiction or paradox comes from earlier in Tuan's writing: he has claimed that working class families and individuals tend to desire to live close together. Whether this is a true choice of will or simply a result of conditioning is left unanswered, and is perhaps unanswerable. Historically speaking as well, immigrants have mostly tended to live with those of their own social (and economic) group upon arrival. What is clear is that, for many people, even the poor, more than simple circumstance goes into choosing a place to live and to their experience of it.
There is a difference between the truly destitute, the inhabitants of last resort, and the simply poor. Though both have a very limited selection of types of dwellings, particularly in the pre-urban renewal period in America there were numerous areas to choose from. Even within areas that might have been considered a single neighborhood by outsiders, block-to-block might have consisted of different building stock, different ethnic groups, or some other shared characteristic. Not everyone consciously chooses a place to live, for some it truly is solely a matter of the least cost or of circumstance, but for many more goes into it than simple chance or social station.
In a way, it hearkens to Cross's argument of individuals having various types of attachment to place. In particular, some individuals have a strong sense of attachment to place whereas others are quite placeless. This can dramatically change the approach of residents to a neighborhood. The city of New Rochelle, located just north of the city and with which I am well acquainted, is a good example. The city's downtown had rapidly declined in the period of white flight and suburbanization starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By the early 1990s, the neighborhood was a disaster: full of broken, empty stores, half empty apartment buildings, and generally crime ridden, it was a place to be avoided at almost all cost.
Yet slowly something changed. A new group of people, Mexican immigrants, began moving in, slowly displacing the previous residents who had generally been left behind in the previous period of decline. Economically, these new residents were hardly discern able from the old; they were no better off financially. Yet they began to choose this neighborhood, and very quickly it began to change. What was once seemingly a burnt-out husk became a place again as stores and people lined the streets. Buildings and sidewalks were cleaned, and trees replanted and cared for: unlike the previous residents, who had ended up there by chance, these residents had chosen this place to be their home, and as such, were taking care of it. The city today, barely ten years later, is quite transformed, even though the income bracket of the residents has hardly changed. And, in an unfortunate irony, the sense of neighborhood has begun to attract those of higher means, threatening to price out the newfound community.
Tuan argues that a neighborhood as an abstract concept grows because of its sense of power, whether that power tends to be negative or positive. In New Rochelle's case, it was the positive power of choice of where to live which created a sense of self, in the West End, it was the threat of imminent destruction which, too late in Tuan's conception, began to create a sense of neighborhood.
But there is more to neighborhood than power; and this is something that poor as well as those of means can appreciate. For example, a neighborhood may be defined by boundaries, or building types, or type of resident, or many other things. These binds may not be as strong as those of community, but they are noticeable, given a modicum of time, to even the most passive of observers.
Traditionally, the West End was defined by numerous factors. First was location; it was located on a filled in swamp on the Northwest side of the Shawmut Peninsula (now Boston proper). Bordered by the former Mill Pond on the East, the Charles on the North and West, and Beacon Hill on the South, it was and and is an area that is relatively well defined. It was also, from its inception, generally an area for those of lower classes. For example, when Beacon Hill was constructed, it streets were designed generally to go East-West, to avoid through traffic to and from the West End as much as possible. Finally, it was defined by its structure: it's tight streets and older, tightly packed, highly subdivided buildings. Of all these factors, the last was perhaps the least notable in the era of urban renewal: all of Boston north of Back Bay and of Dorchester was much the same, with the exception of the office buildings of the downtown. In that regard, at the time it was nothing exceptional. However, with its destruction, along with the destruction of much of the downtown to become Government Center, it would have been an even more clearly delineated district today.
Tuan indicates that the residents simply did not, or could not, see the larger, more conceptual neighborhood; they were more driven by their immediate sense of the block where they lived and the small subset of areas they visited often. This seems an oversimplification, for in my view city folk tend to have a far larger roam and area of experience than Tuan seems to allow. Like the Chinese villagers he describes, there are a large number of small "villages;" blocks, streetcorners and the like, but unlike peasant China, travel is not restricted to the elite. Even a casual stroll can bring the larger environment into firmer focus, particularly given the indicators of neighborhood alluded to above. It is possible these individuals, like those who previously resided in New Rochelle, simply did not care about their environment, but such a feeling is distinct from not recognizing its existence as an entity.
As well, Tuan flirts with a patronizing tone in dealing with these residents, which is problematic. He directly and indirectly likens them to "primitive" or non-literate peoples, and though he may not mean it pejoratively, as after all, we are all human and share some similar basis, it is hard to escape the cultural connotations of the "civilized" vs. "uncivilized" society. But even putting that aside, there is no concrete reason these individuals can't see there own neighborhood; they are obviously capable of abstract thought and can finally see it once it's too late, in Tuan's description. The professionals and artists who protested first have no sole claim to sensing importance. Perhaps they were not consciously aware of the importance of the West End to them personally, but perhaps as well, being poorer and living in an age that tended to prioritize "progress" over all, many simply felt it was helpless to fight city hall. Up till that time, urban renewal projects had a strong history of not being stopped by protest. In addition, though the level to which it was true was often overstated by the developers, many of the housing stock was quite poor, and the promise of government subsidized, modern housing might have seemed promising to the average resident.
On a larger level, this highlights a problematic feature of Tuan's work. While it is deeply fascinating, and while it claims via various cites to be based around anthropology, science, and the like, much of it is observation and assertion. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, and indeed, much of what Tuan outlines is enlightening. At the same time, the assertions without a strong systemic backing (and much of Tuan's systemic backing is weak or poorly fleshed out, at least on first reading) are simply that, and are subject to disagreement and even internal contradiction. This is particularly noticeable when applied to modern history; it is easier to read what one seeks in the distant past, on which information is harder to gather, than on to recent events. All of which is not to claim his insights are wrong, far from it, but simply to point out the larger complexities that are only partially accounted for in his system.